When it comes to living a healthful life, it is important to consider the fundamentals before investigating the secondary aspects of good health.
Sleep is one of these fundamentals.
Optimal sleep is crucial to good health as it helps to support the immune system, positively affects mood and helps to regulate hormone synthesis. These hormones help to modulate blood sugar (insulin), influence appetite and satiety (ghrelin and leptin), promote the stress response (cortisol) and induce sleep (melatonin).
Disrupted or deficient sleep can lead to elevated blood sugar, adrenal dysfunction, a depressed immune system, elevated blood pressure and mood disorders. Despite these consequences, we tend to forfeit sleep in favour of work, family and social commitments and compromise sleep quality by subjecting ourselves to all manner of stimuli.
There are some simple lifestyle changes that can reap significant rewards in terms of both sleep quantity and quality. When regular sleep patterns are established, other health goals should become easier to reach.
- Avoid ingested stimulants: If you drink coffee, tea, or energy drinks, these are best consumed in the morning. Caffeine has a half-life of 5-6 hours, so consuming these beverages after midday can have a detrimental effect on sleep quality. Sugar is also a stimulant so is best avoided in the evening.
- Avoid exposure to blue light before bed: Smart phones, computers and TVs emit blue light which mimics the effect of daylight on the retina. It is ultimately the exposure of the retina to light and darkness that governs the body’s circadian rhythm, the sleep/wake cycle of physiological processes such as temperature regulation and hormone secretion. If light is detected by the retina, a signal is transmitted to the brain that energy and alertness is required for the day’s activities, so cortisol is released. On detection of darkness, as night falls, the brain sends signals for melatonin, the sleep hormone, to be released.
- Keep the bedroom dark and cool: In addition to the effect of darkness on melatonin production, as part of the circadian rhythm, the body’s core temperature drops slightly during sleep. It is helpful to create an appropriately cool sleep environment by donning light sleepwear, opening a window or installing a ceiling fan. Air conditioning is sometimes necessary, but not recommended as they can be very drying to the skin.
- Maintain regular sleep time each day: The circadian rhythm loves consistency so ideally follow a regular bed time and regular wake time each day. Once you know how much sleep is best for you, ensure you retire each evening early enough to allow for a natural rising the next morning, without an alarm.
- Exercise: The human body is designed to move, and sometimes sleep evades us because we haven’t exhausted the day’s supply of energy.It is not ideal to exercise shortly before bed, however, as exercise itself can be stimulating.